Wednesday, December 13, 2006

FEMA: An in-depth critique of its operations – Martin Macyszyn

During the Clinton administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency was praised for it efforts and works in public health for its speedy response to the Oklahoma bombings and the floods that overtook the Midwest in 1996. However, the Bush administration has had FEMA scrutinized by every media station. In 2001, the Homeland Security department was created and FEMA was moved from being an independent agency to an agency under Homeland Security. Since the, department has been heavily ridiculed for its actions during the aftermath of September 11th, and then more when Hurricane Katrina impacted the State of Louisiana and states in proximity. The interventions that FEMA attempted to run failed miserably. There seems to be three underlying problems each time the department is to attempt to provide public health: inequality has been a major problem where individuals are discriminated by their income level or race leaving many individuals stranded and nowhere to go; bureaucracy has lead to severe problems in the agency’s communication and ability to act such as the case during Katrina where the head of FEMA had a false information regarding the conditions of New Orleans; finally, FEMA has failed to educate the public regarding evacuation routes and ways to prepare when disaster strikes. Any intervention by FEMA will fail when these three important aspects are lacking.

The Carter administration created FEMA and made it an independent agency that reported directly to the president because it is the federal government’s duty to protect its citizens by providing assistance mostly financially. However, the agency was moved under the newly established Homeland Security department in February of 2001 by the Bush administration. Only six months later, the department was faced with its first disaster and the intervention following the attacks of 9/11 were disastrous. Dangerous dust particles in the air were present in Manhattan and surrounding neighborhoods. Therefore, people with respiratory problems had severe problems breathing. (NMASS, 2006)

When the World Trade Towers collapsed, dust seemed to get everywhere in New York City and especially to neighboring places like Chinatown and Lower East Side. Unfortunately, the wealthy located in Lower Manhattan were either able to move to other residencies or offered housing in hotel’s free of charge by FEMA. However, the lower-income individuals living in Chinatown or Lower East Side were not offered any assistance by the Federal government. The reason why these individuals were not offered assistance was because FEMA circled a very small portion of NYC, which it believed the dust settled. However, the small portion that was circled was occupied by the wealthy and the poor where left to deal with the problem by themselves. These people living in the lower-income levels were mostly black, Latino, or Chinese and were discriminated upon during times of uncertainty. (NMASS, 2006)
These people were forced to live in these homes infested with dust, which lead to health problems. (NMASS, 2006) Due to the dust, many individuals got respiratory problems, such as breathing impairment and diminished lung capacity, and needed medication. However, FEMA refused to provide any financial support and steered them to Medicaid because many of these people lost their jobs and therefore their income fell. These people contracted respiratory problems because of a disaster and should have been covered by FEMA, not Medicaid. The only way FEMA was to cover any expense was if a person lost more then 25% of their income. People living on a fixed income such as social security were not affected financially, had to choose whether or not to buy a loaf of bread or to buy medication for their illness because the co-payment that Medicaid charged was too high. (NMASS, 2006)

To make matters worse, FEMA did not learn its lesson and two years later, when Katrina struck, inequality was present yet again. During World War II, people of Japanese heritage were forced into camps and no information given when they would be released, the same was done by FEMA during the Katrina catastrophe. The poor were packed into the Superdome with no answers or hopes. (Social Worker, 2005) To make matters worse, these people were heavily dehydrated and hungry with no places to go. The stadium smelled terribly and was heavily damaged itself due to the storm. However, it was the only place that FEMA was able to store these individuals. Rather then sending hundreds of buses and establishing refugee camps all over the United States in order to provide the best care possible to these human beings, they sent about a thousand to Mississippi where they too were dealing with the aftermath of Katrina. (Social Worker, 2005) Approximately, 80 thousand individuals were evacuated from New Orleans but it took several days to do so because the government did not care about those starving in the Superdome. Most of the 26 thousand people that were evacuated from the Superdome were sent to Texas. (Hsu, 2005)

The federal government is able to function because of bureaucracy. It allows for checks and balances not only between the three branches, but in departments too. However, bureaucracy also contributes to major problems such as the ones that plague FEMA, where too much checking is done and not enough doing. One of the main reasons why FEMA is having problems implementing proper public health interventions is due to the fact that the agency is not a separate entity, but rather resides at the Department of Homeland Security. The problem with that organization is that the focus of DHS is to protect United States from terrorist attacks rather then by natural disasters. (Clarke, 2006) The leader of FEMA does not report to the president, but rather reports to the Secretary Chertoff. The problem is that Chertoff did not care for the duties of FEMA and during Katrina, was too busy attending a conference regarding terrorism. Therefore, three billion dollars is spent each year by homeland security to prevent terrorism in the United States. However, only 180 million dollars is spent on FEMA to prepare for disasters. (Majoo, 2005) The administration has dissolved FEMA as an independent agency and been pushing the responsibilities of public health that FEMA is suppose to provide onto state and local governments.

The efforts by President Bush to reorganize FEMA have also caused FEMA chaos in communication within the organization. No longer does the president sit down with a deputy from FEMA and no longer does FEMA communicate well with other agencies or even within its own department. The head of DHS and FEMA did not have any adequate information regarding the conditions of Louisiana. (Majoo, 2005) Even before Hurricane Katrina struck land, communication seemed to be lacking at FEMA. Many local governments, including the city of Chicago offered to provide support for the State of Louisiana, but FEMA refused. FEMA believed that the agency was fully prepared when both the president and mayor declared a state of emergency the day before Katrina struck. However, FEMA did not do anything to prepare for the hurricane and basically just waited. (Majoo, 2005)

The director of FEMA was not aware of anything that was taking place in Louisiana. In an interview, he was shocked to learn from the reporter that people were lacking water, food, and all necessary supplies to survive. (Zahn, 2005) This may be why FEMA refused truckloads of water from the giant retailer Walmart. (Clarke, 2006) For a while, people watching the news on the television knew more of what was taking place. The bureaucratic system that was established in order to get the information to the top failed and because of it, people were suffering. (Clarke, 2006)

Studies conducted by the New York Academy show that without getting local citizens to participate in a disaster relief intervention, an organization will fight an uphill battle. (Clarke, 2006) Public Health professionals have attempted to solve problems by educating the public. FEMA has done little to none to educate the population about what to do when disasters strike. Not all disasters such as earthquakes can be prepared for, but hurricanes show up on radar and FEMA knows relatively where it will hit and when. In order to provide information regarding terrorism and disasters, DHS made a website called Ready in 2003. (Santos, 2006)

The web site has been highly criticized by the media for its content. The content on the web site seems to be “vague, inaccurate, duplicative, confusing and incompetent.” (Santos, 2006) This was a statement from a college student that tried to work with the website and gather information regarding disasters and how to prepare for one. FEMA has failed with this website because it is not easy and directive as it should be. Also, when disaster strikes, one of the first things to go is the power. It would be very difficult to check what one is suppose to do when disaster strikes when their computers will not turn on. (Santos, 2006)

Federal Emergency Management Agency cannot forget that it is their duty to provide public health interventions when an emergency occurs. The organization has failed three important social and behavioral science qualities: equality, communication, and education. Inequality should not be taking place in the 21st century, but when a disaster strikes, it seems FEMA does just that. The bureaucratic system that exists in the US government has worked since 1776 and there is no reason why FEMA cannot do so either. Such breakdown in communication that took place when Katrina hit should never again take place. Just as with any intervention, the public needs to be educated properly and the information needs to be readily available. The website is a step in the right direction but the information and availability when power outages happen need to be rethought.

Works Cited
Clarke, Richard. “The Forgotten Homeland: A Century Foundation Task Force Report.”
Century Foundation Press. 11/1/06.

Hsu, Spencer. “Many Evacuated, but Thousands Still Waiting.” Washington Post. 9/4/05.
Page A01.

Manjoo, Farhad. “Why FEMA failed.” Salon. 9/7/2005.

Santos, Carlos. “Intern takes on” Times Dispatch. 9/3/06

“Surviving September 11: Fighting for Our Health and Our Lives.” NMASS. 10/30/06.

“Unnatural disaster.” Socialist Worker. 9/9/05. 2/556/556_03_Unnatural.shtml>

Zahn, Paula. “Paula Zahn Now.” CNN. 9/1/05. TRANSCRIPTS/0509/01/pzn.01.html>


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